S a bit of light relief, I’m going to turn now to commenting on something interesting that I keep seeing happening in the blogosphere. I notice it mostly in relation to the question of whether Buffy the Vampire Slayer is feminist… but I was also struck by how the same kinds of questions came up for me in relation to a discussion on the delightfully polemical I Blame the Patriarchy about feminist science fiction. Yup, that’s right, wading into these debates. Probably not terribly wise, but ah… there it is. Light and unwise.
The thing that strikes me about these kinds of conversations (aside from the apparent wilfulness of those who fail to recognise the sublime wit of the Joss-master (tongue,tongue,tongue-in-cheek! well, almost)) is the way that one person will list what they see as feminist aspects of, say, Buffy – she kicks demonic arse, she sasses da baddies, she makes her own decisions, whatever – only to be responded to by another person who will list what they see as the anti-feminist aspects – SMG got soso skinny, she’s all blonde white and all-american, and she gets beat on every episode. These discussions happen as if there’s a kind of quantity play-off, where each negative is taken to cancel out a positive, so if there’s a positive still standing at the end, the show is proven to be feminist.
I wondered a similar thing when blamers were asked to suggest feminist sci-fi (and point out the huge amounts of ridiculously terrible misogyny in much sci-fi). Disagreements, as one would hope, were rife. But there was also a kind of implicit ambivalence about claiming any given text as feminist. Was a feminist text one in which the women were only ever empowered? Could a feminist text have women depicted who were having a rough time? What about if they were having a rough time at the hands of men? One example, I think, was The Handmaid’s Tale, held up both as feminist canon and partriarchy page-ified.
I couldn’t help feeling, occasionally, as I read through the comments, that the only book that would fit some definitions of being feminist was one in which all the women were empowered, strong, capable, gentle, never ever got bad-mouthed or beaten on, never ever did those things to anyone else; yet even these could be understood as (in some ways) anti-feminist because of the requirements made of women to be perfect. The perfect feminist sci-fi, then, seemed to be an impossible story in which conflict was almost impossible because it was a utopia. No, that’s a little unfair, but: is a novel feminist because the women in it don’t struggle? Or, rather, does sci-fi that depicts women struggling against patriarchy (and maybe not overthrowing the entire system of government etc) simply perpetuate patriarchy?
People claim that audiences are post-modern these days, but these kinds of discussions make me less sure. Because lying behind both these discussions is the implication that, in the end, a text will come out feminist or not feminist over all. One singular meaning – or at least the outcome of equation [feminist] – [patriarchal] = average feminist meaning – must win out. Joss Whedon is either feminist dream-man or anti-feminist con-man.
But texts don’t really work this way (not to mention people!), and I don’t even mean in a Barthesian ‘meaning is in the eye of the beholder’ kind of sense. Texts are always radically and irreducibly plural. On my reading of Buffy the Vampire Slayer then, there are feminist threads and non- and yes, maybe even anti-feminist threads: she is a skinny blond remarkably white, middle-class cheerleader who in the true fashion of female leads gets skinnier as the seasons pass, and she’s also the always-dead horror-story girl-who-had-sex-this-one-time-and-must-pay who kicks demon arse and saves herself, the boy in distress, and the day. She does often operate as a lone, sovereign individual after a masculine archetype of heroism, and she finally discovers, having relied upon her friends for so much, that power shared is power to the power of n. Each contradiction doesn’t cancel the other out; both threads end up doing something, meaning something. I understand the desire to be able to say whether Buffy is a feminist hero or feministly hollow, but this requires slicing aside complexity and contradiction in an attempt to find a text to hold up as the feminist handbook or the ultimate anti-feminist con.
But I think this is more significant than I’m making out, and this is where this post links to the last one (betcha didn’t see that one coming, huh! Labyrinth of my mind!). Kittay showed that the way for challenges to normalcy to become legitimate is by establishing that legitimacy in and through normalcy of other kinds. It doesn’t excuse the perpetuation of mainstream, patriarchal and racist narratives in Buffy, but these narratives have a tradition which is precisely what Whedon offers a challenge to. That is, he tells a story that reiterates generic conventions, and yes, those generic conventions are often problematic, but he does it so that the story might be told and more, might be heard (by playing into our existing cultural literacies and what we enjoy). And he also troubles aspects of those conventions – maybe, according to some, not enough – but nonetheless, he troubles the assumption that women are helpless; the assumption that kids and pop culture are just dumb; the assumption that nerds are never “occasionally… callous and strange” (and FoucaultIsDead, you made my ellipsis all significant now! It’s just Willow’s “I am,” I swear!). Having Buffy and the Scoobies on television screens cleverly reiterating often problematic generic conventions and at the same time turning (some of) them on their heads helped make it possible for Veronica, Hiro, Jane, Nancy, Rose, River and a whole lot of other characters to make their way onto the screens. None of them do the world entirely differently, but how would we recognise such a world as our own anyway? Therein lies the rub about what is implied to be perfect feminist sci-fi: in a world not perfect, how would that perfection speak to us, change us, allow us to think differently? Maybe dialects are necessary, especially where we want stories we feel emotionally bound to. And maybe they’ll be what helps us to the new and foreign, to the other language we couldn’t have known otherwise, a language not perfect but carrying the promise. Then again, maybe they make that new and foreign language impossible, because in reiterating the privileged, they maintain that privilege, like I seem to have suggested in the post on Kittay… I remain uncertain.But I should probably try to work that one out.